On Failing for Our Kids


Every third Sunday at Tiny Church, we have guest musicians come in and play for the service. Our accompanist plays the hymns and leads the congregational singing, but the guest musicians play music at the beginning and end of the service, plus two pieces in the middle.

This past Sunday, my fourth grader was scheduled to be the guest musician. She chose four pieces she knew well, and for a week prior, she practiced them to flawlessness.

And on Sunday… well, who can say how it happened. She’d been to three birthday parties that weekend and as an introvert was peopled out, perhaps. She was tired. She didn’t have a good breakfast. I don’t know. But she got an attack of stage fright the likes of which I’ve never seen in her. No pep talk could snap her out of it.

She is old enough to be aware of what I write here, so the details are between her and those of us in Tiny Church. Let me just say that she made it through the first piece beautifully.

Robert took her out afterward so she could compose herself, and I went right into the call to worship. It’s one of the most uncomfortable moments of ministry I’ve ever had. I wanted to be with her, but I had a job to do.

Since then she’s talked to her parents, her grandparents, and her piano teacher about what happened. We’ve laughed about the fact that no matter where people start, every last one of us concludes with the same expression: Get back on the horse.

Myself, I was flummoxed about the whole thing. What brought this on? Then I remembered playing The Baker’s Wife in a college production of Into the Woods. It was a fantastic experience, but very intense—several nights of performances, but with the same classload and homework as always. My worst performance of the entire run was when my dad was in the audience. My Dad was never one of those hyper-critical, impossible to please types. Still, I so wanted to do a good job that night. But my timing was off, my voice sounded terrible, and realizing this just made me sieze up even further.

Remember when I said intense? One of the RAs found me outside, crying uncontrollably between scenes.


So what’s a perfectionist raising a perfectionist to do?

I told her later that I wished I’d asked the congregation for a show of hands: how many of you have experienced stage fright? Or nervousness at doing something new? And let her see the sea of hands. Surely everyone would raise a hand, except people who a) are lying or b) have never challenged themselves.

It’s probably just as well that I didn’t do that, because it would’ve put her on the spot. Plus, I don’t think kids get it. They don’t get that adults had (and have) fears and phobias. Adults must seem so… competent to kids. Sure, kids see us lose our cool; they see us spill the cereal and scrape the car door against the garage. But mainly, they see us succeed. Hold down a job. Set a goal and meet it. Be where we’re supposed to be, more or less on time.

I read a lot of stuff about parenting, and of the many critiques of helicopter parenting—and there are many, and rightfully so—the most significant is that it doesn’t serve kids well. Children don’t learn resilience when we’re always smoothing things over for them. But I also wonder whether resilience gets built when children witness adults taking risks. I don’t mean stupid risks (no cooking meth in your basement). But I don’t mean cute risks either (taking a ballroom dancing class). I mean real, authentic, bowel-quivering risk.

Maybe just letting them in on the risks we do take would help. Every night at dinner, we do a modified examen with our kids—we all share our most and least grateful moments (framed as most/least favorite when they were younger). Often my least grateful moment is something in the news, or concern for someone who’s sick. It’s less often that I share about the rejection letter I received, or the withering comment that came when I stuck my neck out about something. But maybe those moments are important for children to witness.

Of course, parents should provide a sense of stability and security for their kids. We don’t want to come off as capricious. But the world our children are inheriting is a world of rapid change. The roles and rules are not spelled out. People who can conquer their own fear of the unknown, take risks, and shrug off disappointment will be much better off in life.

On Sunday I said to Caroline, “You were really scared, you tried something hard, and you didn’t die.” Let me be clear that I do not think she failed. But maybe children need to see us fail. Or more to the point, maybe they need to see us fail and not die.

11 thoughts on “On Failing for Our Kids

  1. Bob Braxton

    No one showed up Wednesday evening for “prayer meeting” at South Fork Friends.
    My parents had provided piano lessons for me since I was seven years of age.
    It was raining.
    They sent me up to the piano to PLAY the hymn(s), which I had never done.
    A hymn was unlike any of my “music lesson books” pieces (simplified).
    Mercifully someone chose “Wonderful Words of Life” which has only one note at a time
    in the left hand. It would have been much harder for me (firstborn) to see my parent fail then.

  2. Rachel Heslin

    Hunter and I have started journaling at night together. I break it down into 3 reviews:
    1. What did you *not* like about today (especially something you did), and what can you learn from it?
    2. What was something that you did that you did like about today?
    3. What was something that you liked that you did today that was a direct result of growth or learning on your part?

    He doesn’t like writing out #1 or #3, but we still get a chance to talk about them, framing our days as an ongoing series of learning experiences where every disappointment, embarrassment, and “poor choice” bears the seed of a better life.

  3. Carol Bryan

    Oh, MA, how I can relate to this story both as a daughter and a mother. I’ve been a perfectionist my whole life. It is a two-faced coin, a strength and a weakness. When I see/hear my daughter being hard on herself it’s heartbreaking … and history repeating itself. You may know that I grew up as a competitive figure skater – an art, I now realize, that is IMPOSSIBLE to perfect. It is exhilarating when it goes well and maddening for someone with perfectionism and OCD. Your story of Caroline’s experience flooded my mind with the memory of a time – the exact moment – I failed publicly, and in a big way as a 12 yr. old at an important qualifying competition. I drew a lousy skating spot – first skater of the first heat in the first event of the first day. The ice was soft and sloppy – covered with a 1/2 inch of water. I took my starting position. The ruby colored beads glistened on my red skating costume. My music started. I did my first handful of crossovers to gain speed and promptly kicked my foot out from underneath me! I went SPLAT! Basically, I executed the equivalent of a belly flop and, due to the ice surface conditions, proceeded to slide on my stomach the length of the arena and bump into the boards at the opposite end. HUMILIATING. EMBARRASSING. I looked for the hole in which to crawl. The music continued. I was mortified. I couldn’t get up because I had knocked the wind out of myself. After a bit, the referee walked onto the ice and came and collected me. The kind man took pity and said he would give me another chance after the rest of the group had skated (this was unusual). I was soaking wet … and gasping for air. ugh. I went immediately to the restrooms and began sobbing. A few minutes later my mother entered having made her way there from the rows of bleachers seats. I said I wanted to get in the car and go home. She hugged me and said gently that was not an option and that I needed to “get back on the horse” and go out and finish. In a nutshell, she didn’t raise a quitter and there was no quitting on her shift. I was angry at her. How could she do this to me?! I felt betrayed. Surely, EVERYONE saw what had happened which was punishment enough, I thought. Skip to the end of the story … I failed in a big way, I got back on the horse, I didn’t die. Mom was right.

    1. MaryAnn McKibben Dana Post author

      Oh Carol!

      First, I did not know that you had done figure skating, but I am not surprised because you have a natural grace and posture that makes sense now 😉

      Secondly—reading this story is like being on holy ground. Very real and raw, 1/2 inch of water holy ground!

      Thank you for sharing. It’s moments like this that make us who we are. (Heard Brene Brown on Krista Tippett’s show say this very thing—painful but true.)

      And the connection between perfectionism and OCD—I had never thought about that but yes, that makes sense. Not to minimize it as a diagnosable illness. But we all have a certain architecture and I believe I tend that way.

      1. Carol Bryan

        Thanks. Yeah, this is one of my top two “most embarrassing moments” in life. Good life lesson, tho. painful as it was. I hope Caroline bounces back. Feel free to tell her about my “big flop”! Oh, and there were plenty of other times when the nervousness got the better of me. Just like Caroline, I was perfect in the 5 minute allotted warm up period then, POOF, it went up in smoke when the music started. Made no sense. Guess that’s why sports psychologists can make a living.

  4. Jeremy

    My first semester of grad school was a disaster. I KNEW I wasn’t going to make it through. I was looking for jobs for a guy with a BS and one unsuccessful semester of grad school. When I was at my lowest point, completely exhausted with no end in sight, I called my mom and just broke down. She told me she’d had almost the exact conversation with my dad when he was in pilot training, that he was convinced he wasn’t going to make it. The idea that my dad, who as far as I knew had excelled in every classroom he’d ever seen, had struggled in the same way at the same point in his life was one of the greatest things I’d ever heard. He finished pilot training. I finished grad school.

  5. Sue

    MaryAnn, this post resonates with me so much. My heart was aching for Caroline as I remembered similar experiences when I was her age.
    What really came to mind was something much more recent. A few weeks ago I conducted what I now refer to as “Worst Worship Ever” which included a baptism. I completely messed up that service. By the end of the worship I found myself thinking “At least I didn’t drop the baby.” Seriously.
    I am a perfectionist. I can deal with the tiny glitches in worship that no one will notice but the music director. The mistakes that morning were well beyond that.
    I had spent the weekend at a workshop so my introvert self was screaming for mercy. Like Caroline, I was peopled out. I also had the early signs that I had a nasty migraine day ahead of me. I was dizzy, nauseated, aphasic and foggy-headed. Oh joy.
    I tripped over the Easter flowers in front of the communion table, my earpiece wouldn’t stay on my ear, my children’s sermon tanked, I forgot to present the family with the baby’s prayer shawl. It was pretty bad.
    I went home and sobbed as my ever-patient partner patted my back and said “It’s a good thing there are 51 more Sundays this year sweetie.” He means well. I wanted to punch him.
    Caroline’s advisors are correct, you really do need to get back on that horse. I failed and no one died. I conducted worship last week and it was lovely.
    Thanks for this post MaryAnn.

  6. Sandy

    I’m imagining that folks at Tiny Church were lovely in response to Caroline who inadvertently created what was a powerful worship experience even if the music never got played. This is the genius of small churches, where “failure” is received with the same generosity as “success”. Where our kids get to provide genuine leadership, and are known and loved as individuals rather than being one dot in a sea of faces in a kidmin crowd. Thanks for your lovely writing.

    1. MaryAnn McKibben Dana Post author

      Sandy, that’s so true. Our organist sent her a lovely note, older musician to younger one, that encouraged her to try again. And people sought her out to tell stories of stage fright and other hard things. I love small churches for this dynamic.

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